“Good Riddance to Long Books” is the title of a recent Spectator article by news journalist John Sturgis. He celebrated the current shortlist for the Booker Prize for being short books, one coming in at just 116 pages. He observed how much delight he took in Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, a short story of twelve pages and Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, just 48,000 words.
I love Graham Greene’s work as well. There is an economy of writing within the richness of the plots and the themes he explores. I’ve been reading the works of Willa Cather, and I’m struck with the beauty of the writing, painting with words, the finely drawn characters, and that they are not one page longer than needed.
But I cannot say I choose works because they are short or long. Nor do most of those on my Bob on Books Facebook page in answer to the question, “To what extent is the length of a book a factor in your decision to read it?” While there was not a unanimous opinion on this, the general sense is that it wasn’t a factor, and many love losing themselves in a long book.
The general consensus was that it was all in the quality of the writing. It began with the first sentence, the first page. Did it catch your attention and draw you in? Beyond that, it seems to come down to an author’s ability to spin a story that the reader doesn’t want to end. So much of this has to do with writerly skill. There are long books that really needed to be shortened (one thinks of the “Wheel of Time” books) and ones that justify the scale on which they are written by the world created within them, the complexity of the characters, and the winding but not dragging course of the plot.
I also read a number of long books of history and biography. I am in the middle of Andrew Meier’s Morgenthau, which will probably be my longest book of the year at 1072 pages. What Meier gives us is really four interleaved biographies, four generations of Morgenthaus, the last three advisors to presidents Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy (Robert Morgenthau also distinguished himself as a U.S. Attorney). It’s the story of a family over those four generations and how both dynasty and character shape their lives. I find it fascinating to see how Meier spins it all out, and how this family left its mark in our national story.
Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, and Ron Chernow have all written massive histories and biographies. David Halberstam even wrote massively about baseball, and I loved it! To read each is not to get lost in a mass of detail but to get caught up in life stories and historical events that cannot be fully explored in just a couple hundred pages. The recently deceased Hilary Mantel did the same thing with her historical fiction trilogy on the life of Thomas Cromwell.
There are factors that have nothing to do with the writing that influence some people. If one still loves physical books, long books weigh a lot, especially those that are hardbound. Older readers find them hard to hold. For some of us, the question is when will we read them. A busy season of life draws out the process so much. You do want to savor a long book, but like a good steak, you don’t want to let it get cold. So it only makes sense to read when you can read consistently (or if you are like some, binge read, kind of like binge watching a whole season of a video series over a weekend).
I think it comes down to the writing. That’s what makes books long or short worth the read. It’s a magical something in the words that you know when your read them. A quote attributed to Jane Austen states, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.” If we don’t want it to end, if we finish the book and savor it determining we will buy the next thing the writer publishes, that’s a good book, long or short. If we find ourselves peaking ahead wondering when you will reach the end, its not only too long but may not have been written well. Shortening it may not have helped, other than ending the pain sooner.
So, at least for me, it is not about short books versus long. A well-written book is always just long enough to accomplish its purpose while it leaves us longing for more, whether it is 200 or 1000 pages in length. It seems a bit like art, where painters execute masterpieces on postcards, and also on the ceilings of cathedrals.
There may be a difference in the reading experience and what different kinds of books ask of their readers. Short books remind me of a tasty salad on a summer day, when a taste of something may be all we need. Long books are more like a leisurely, multi-course banquet, enjoyed over many hours with good friends. The delight of reading is that we needn’t have a monotonous diet, that there are books for every occasion. Let’s hope book critics, writers, and publishers remember that!
5 thoughts on “Good Riddance to Long Books?”
Good riddance to long books? Not in my house! I too have read Barbara Tuchman, David Halberstam, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro, and Ron Chernow. Hilary Mantel’s fiction trilogy on Cromwell drove me to read Cromwell’s biographies. Short stories and novellas have a place in my library too. How can one not read all of Hemingway’s short stories? The length of a book, the heft of a book is only important to me when I decide whether to read in a chair or in bed.
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I have recently been encountering a problem with your blog. When I try to “like” it or post a comment, WordPress wants me to sign in. However, it will not take the password I have used for a long time but also gives me no “forgot your password” kind of option to do anything about this.
Just wondering if you are seeing any drop off in comments or if this is just my problem!
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Just sent a query to WordPress support. Haven’t encountered a drop off. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.
When life gets super busy, simple short books are an escape. But long, well written novels are absolutely necessary for cool winter months , and bring a challenge to the mind that doesn’t involve ordinary daily events. Our psyche seems to know which we need to bring some balance to our reading.